I have previously written about why Universal Basic Income (UBI) may result in poor outcomes, even if we’re able and willing to implement it.
Here, I invite you to think about what an alternative — one that still addresses the issues UBI hopes to solve — might look like. If you have not read the previous article you may miss some context in this one, as the advantages of the alternate system listed here correspond to the UBI flaws listed there.
I believe that instead of paying everyone unconditionally and hoping for positive results, society is probably better off with a Basic Jobs program that pays people to create positive value for their communities. Paying people to produce, when for them it would otherwise not be economically feasible, is a more directed and intelligent approach to welfare than merely spreading the proverbial hay. A Basic Jobs plan may be less ideal in who it helps, but it’s a less fragile system overall.
Let your mind wander well beyond stock-photo visions of job-stimulus programs — a few guys with yellow vests and hard-hats building roads and bridges and “infrastructure.”
Generally, when a system optimizes for a result, it invariably produces more of that result. UBI’s blanket-of-money approach optimizes for a certain kind of poverty, but it may create more poverty of the same kind in the long run. A Basic Jobs program introduces work and opportunity into communities, which may be a better welfare optimization strategy. Moreover, it’s a program that could be implemented while keeping a targeted approach to aiding those most in need
What Are Basic Jobs?
Basic Jobs programs, also called Job Guarantee or Workfare, are welfare programs in which the state promises to hire workers in order to enhance livelihood security. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in India is a modern example. Historically, the U.S. operated the Civilian Conservation Corps and Work Projects Administration with similar goals. Basic Jobs are occasionally floated as an alternative to Basic Income.
Let your mind wander well beyond stock-photo visions of job-stimulus programs (a few guys with yellow vests and hard-hats building roads and bridges and “infrastructure”). To create Basic Jobs properly, we need to greatly expand our idea of what it is possible to fund. Remember, we are not aiming for a perfect program, we are simply trying to envision something better than the UBI proposals out there today.
Why Are Basic Jobs Better Than UBI?
The 20th century is pock-marked with attempts to wholesale reshape societies — and with the subsequent disastrous aftermath. The attraction of UBI may rest more in its directness and in its grand thinking than in its promise to robustly fulfill its goals. Good welfare, like good governance, is probably not best solved by the plan that’s simply the easiest to explain. Have you ever had a politically-minded teenager tell you, “We really just need one law: Don’t be a dick”? We must be absolutely sure that UBI does not turn out to be welfare’s intellectual equivalent.
1. Gradualism and piloting
Studying a UBI pilot with an end date is not studying UBI at all; it is studying a misnamed, temporary cash payment. By the very nature of pilot programs, a cohort’s behavior cannot reliably change over the long term. No study has ever guaranteed money to a cohort forever, which impacts the validity of the study’s outcomes. Even if a program were able to offer funds forever, it would be difficult for a pilot to show the long-term effects, some of which may not be seen for generations. What pilot, for example, can tell us what it’s like for kids to grow up with parents who’ve never worked?
Universal Basic Income pilots also tend to fail at the Universal part. It’s hard to study how society would change if you are not piloting something that affects all of society. For example, this study in Finland, is far from universal:
“During the experiment, a total of 2,000 unemployed persons between 25 and 58 years of age will receive a monthly payment of €560, unconditionally and without means testing. The experiment will run for two years.”
Basic Job programs, by contrast, are more amenable to piloting and gradual roll-out. New clusters of jobs appear (and end) all the time. Piloting Basic Jobs can be done in different communities with varying magnitudes, and the legislation to do so is already in place:
In the United States, the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act of 1978 allows the government to create a ‘reservoir of public employment’ in case private enterprise does not provide sufficient jobs. These jobs are required to be in the lower ranges of skill and pay so as to not draw the workforce away from the private sector. However, the act did not establish such a reservoir (it only authorized it), and no such program has been implemented in the United States, even though the unemployment rate has generally been above the rate (three percent) targeted by the act. — via Wikipedia
And even a pilot may have lasting benefits. What we learn from a Basic Jobs pilot will be more applicable than studying temporary cash transfers in a community and expecting that knowledge to translate into society-wide UBI. If a pilot is successful, one can imagine a kind of National Civil Service, organized like existing federal programs such as the National Park Service, which can hire professionals to train and supervise projects.
2. The people who need more help can still get it
Unlike many UBI proposals, subsidizing a Basic Jobs program does not require defunding other welfare programs. Because with Basic Jobs we can keep some amount of existing welfare programs, the people potentially forsaken in UBI schemes can still get the help they need. A future with Basic Jobs still allows for costly medical assistance, case workers, special needs, extra care for the sick and the infirm, and so on. Under a pure UBI safety net, a diabetic effectively gets less money than everyone else because they have additional life needs (insulin); such problems are ameliorated with Basic Jobs because we can keep and incrementally improve our current basket of welfare programs.
Basic Jobs are not an exciting tear-down and rebuild. Boring is better than spectacular, here, especially if the spectacular cannot help people at the margins, and cannot promise to be free of spectacular failures. The problems society faces are complex and necessitate a hodgepodge of social programs. This is not to say that UBI cannot work — it might — but it is wishful thinking to wager our whole society on its success.
3. Pro-social and existential factors
One of the biggest assumptions people make about UBI is that the problems of today and the near future are primarily ones of money. I don’t think the data supports this. Economist Noah Smith recently gave several examples.
The pervasive problem in society today is not that people don’t have enough money to survive, it’s that to survive and thrive people need things beyond food and rent: social responsibility, a sense of purpose, community, meaningful ways to spend their time, nutrition education, and so on. If we fixate merely on the money aspect, we may be misdiagnosing what is making our 21st century so miserable for so many people.
What if it doesn’t work? What if we run out of jobs?
There is a strong, proven correlation between disability income and drug abuse. I ask, how does writing “UBI” on the top of the check instead of “disability” make a difference? Disability claims are strongly correlated with the economy, yet recessions do not cause people to become paraplegics. Disability in the U.S. is a very soft basic income already, with a socially-accepted (and very thin) disguise. The at-risk population in the U.S. needs more than just a check. They need purpose and responsibility.
4. Basic Jobs are more resilient
What if it doesn’t work? What if we run out of jobs? Suppose a Basic Jobs program fails 20 or 30 years into the future. Maybe there’s too much corruption or not enough oversight, or the political will is no longer there, or the money itself is no longer there. Contingency planning is good. No matter how much you trust the pilot, you still want an airplane with emergency exits.
If a Basic Jobs program crashes, the side effects seem less severe (or even mildly positive) when contrasted with a UBI failure. So what if we accidentally fund farms, bakeries, furniture production, house construction, and all sorts of small scale crafts across the country? Even in pessimistic scenarios, we can expect some of the businesses and functions built by the program to continue serving their communities after an official program is gone, in the same way that the Hoover dam is still there. A Basic Jobs program can plan for contingencies and for the divvying up of what’s been created, democratically, by community. Sheep farmers that are no longer supported by the government have at least got their flocks. If things ever go south, Basic Jobs better position us to try something else.
By contrast, with UBI, if the program fails after 20 or 30 years, we may end up with the opposite: a generation that never learned to work, or to do anything for that matter, suddenly finding itself without the means to even transport food into their communities. For a community wholly dependent on UBI, a community that does not produce for others or for themselves, an abrupt end to that UBI is a doomsday.
Implications for the future pose a question: Who is more likely to eventually go to work, the children of UBI recipients or the children of Basic Job recipients? It is not possible to answer this question with a UBI pilot, but it can be answered by posing a more fundamental question: Are wealth and poverty intergenerational? Of course they can be. The goal is to alleviate poverty. As a society, we should be careful not to put a system in place that inadvertently entrenches people within it. A child growing up in a Basic Jobs household, witnessing working parents, almost certainly has a better shot at life than a child growing up in a UBI household, with parents who may have never worked.
5. Avoids issues of unfairness and resentment
“In front of virtue the immortal gods have put sweat.…And it is by working that a man becomes more philos than other men to the immortals and to mortals. They all hate the idle.” — Hesiod, Works and Days, 600 B.C.
Basic Jobs programs avoid the resentment issues of UBI schemes. People have never liked the idea of paying other people to do nothing, which is why most current cash transfers in the U.S. that approximate a basic income are under the guise of disability. Employing people with basic jobs is a more palatable option, and can be considered a way to invest in an entire community, instead of transferring cash to those who many will perceive as moochers.
Someone employed in a basic job can easily change their station, may be learning or practicing skills, and has no resume gap. Whereas those who work a basic job for 10 years have something to point to as a measure of success, those who collect UBI and do not work for a decade may become part of an un-employable underclass. Such a difference is important if the funding dries up, and may be critical to generations down the line. As I previously mentioned, the children of Basic Jobs recipients will probably be better equipped for any future.
In sum, Basic Jobs programs are politically easier to swallow because society expects some kind of return on investment if it is paying people to work.
6. Paying people to do work has its own positive effects
Capitalism has a good share of critics, but while there are plenty of issues at the margins, the building blocks of capitalism have lead to some nice returns for all of humanity, even for the poorest among us.
Capitalism is comprised of a series of transactions between parties. The side effect of the median transaction in capitalism is the creation of value. If you want something, you must create value for someone (sell something or work for someone) before you can get (buy) the thing you want. The nature of this is not very complicated, but it’s fundamentally what makes markets, and nearly everything, work. Over centuries, the cumulative effects of capitalism are large:
We should want to keep this positive effect of capitalist economic transaction. UBI creates paychecks; Basic Jobs programs do, too, but basic jobs also create transactions, incentives, and products, thereby fulfilling secondary needs for society.
A Basic Jobs program can be thought of as a program that pays people to make other people’s lives better in addition to their own. We would be paying people to produce local food and crafts, subsidized to reduce risk, and therefore giving communities an alternative to the Walmart-esque globalized marketplaces. If the government subsidizes the workers so that their goods can be competitive, it will foster local economies while putting money in the pockets of local workers who themselves have more power. Hopefully, the second-order effects of such commerce are impactful enough maintain the benefits. One could argue that the strong Swiss and other European agricultural subsidies are already a soft form of a Basic Jobs system.
With Basic Jobs, town halls could enable communities with high unemployment to decide for themselves what they need.
Basic Jobs programs are a socialized attempt to identify communities that need help and offer a pseudo-capitalist solution. How many basic jobs could gradually be shifted to self-sustaining jobs? Can a 100 percent subsidized bakery in a town eventually become 50 percent subsidized, or zero percent subsidized, as the workers buy out the government to turn a government-assisted bakery into an employee-owned bakery? There is opportunity to enrich the community while freeing up government capital to create the next opportunity. Paying people to work may not sound like welfare, but the second-order effects on communities might be more powerful than any version of cash-transfer welfare has ever been.
Guaranteed Minimum Agriculture
Please note, my confidence in the feasibility of what I suggest below is very low. I offer this alternative as only a thought experiment.
Guaranteed Minimum Agriculture is one option that could be fulfilled by a Basic Jobs program. I don’t want you to think that agriculture jobs would be the only ones worth funding; I want you to think about a role for Basic Jobs that goes well beyond mere “infrastructure.” To make it meaningful, we’re going to need a lot more political imagination than the typical stimulus program. Guaranteed Minimum Artisans or Trades might be more accurate. We don’t want to build roads, we have no problem making more of those already. We want to build communities, livelihoods, and small scale economies.
With Basic Jobs, town halls could enable communities with high unemployment to decide for themselves what they need. Some towns may want to revive agriculture in their area. Others may request training and equipment for all sorts of crafts: bakeries, furniture studios, a town brewery, small-scale daycare subsidized by paying workers wages, the means (and payroll) to establish a co-op that might allow local farmers to deliver meat, eggs, cheese, vegetables, to people in the area. I use these examples because in the past most towns used to have their own bakery and brewery, and a sufficient (no Walmart needed) market. If there is value in community, why not pay and support local markets and see what happens? If it doesn’t work, of course, we can always try something else, there’s no shortage of need. More and better housing could always be built, almost anywhere.
Agriculture may benefit the most from a planned deindustrialization. Mechanization shifted the ranks of America’s farmers from a distributed many to a concentrated few. This created food pipelines that are efficient and cheap, but at the same time eroded what was once common knowledge about how to grow, process, preserve, and even eat. We in the U.S. are less healthy than ever, and outsourcing the majority of our food production to just a few parts of the country has played its part in making us that way. Industrialization and consolidation was an acceptable trade-off as manufacturing and mining jobs boomed. Now that the job landscape is different, we should consider returning to a more distributed form of agriculture. What good is total efficiency, if the cost is forsaking our communities? And what is the meaning of food security, if out of 100 people in a room, only a handful know how to care for more than a potted plant?
The internet was originally designed as an redundant network for military purposes. If catastrophe struck the U.S., other places could still communicate and function. We should consider the cost of consolidating food production the same way: the more distributed it is, the more America has a civilian backup. Guaranteeing a level of agriculture in every area guarantees livelihoods and also food security in those areas and beyond. This is not a new argument — it’s similar to how Japan justifies their food security and subsidy system, which emerged after the post WWII famines. Guaranteeing a level of small-scale agriculture in Europe is also a result of many farm-subsidy programs, which are costly but ensure a distributed level of quality products in many countries (like Switzerland, where 55 percent of farmer income comes from the state). In the U.S., this would mean a shift in farm subsidies from promoting mass-yield crops like corn and soy to small farms that promote more local yields, especially animal products. Currently, about $20 billion in subsidies mostly go to very large farmers churning out these staple crops. A guaranteed minimum agriculture would instead promote regional economies and encourage calorie sources from something other than millions of acres of corn. This creates an obvious initial focus for a Basic Jobs program.
Aside: Americans, even rich ones, are food ignorant to the point of measurably poor health outcomes. In the shift to mass production of food, we left behind quite a bit of quality. And while quality food is easy to find in cities, it could still be cheaper. Beyond quality, there are benefits to knowing your breadmaker, cheesemaker, and so on. It’s not necessary for the success of Basic Jobs, but it would be nice if subsidizing local agriculture and artisans created a more food-conscious culture. Obesity numbers are not trivial, with excess weight now implicated in at least 20 percent of all deaths in the U.S. If a deindustrialization of food is successful, the effects on healthcare alone may be worth it.
We have not solved the problems of derelict urban centers, ugly cities, or lack of housing. The increase in automation (a fear motivating some UBI proponents) doesn’t look like it’s equipped to solve these problems either. It’s up to us. If it does not seem crazy to pay all people to do nothing (UBI), then we should be willing to pay some people to do something.
In every possible future, creating more housing and furnishing public parks and buildings at a higher material standard is work worth doing. Paying people to do nothing is not revolutionary, it’s just a lack of political imagination. It’s worth it for us to think bigger than that. Be like Alex, with his dream for a New England filled with trains:
Have the imagination to consider all of the work that is not being done, even with F.D.R.-style public works programs can be found almost everywhere. Building bicycle lane networks. Creating and maintaining public parks, flowerbeds, sidewalks. Demolition and recycling and re-urbanization (or reforestation) of derelict factory grounds. There are so many projects that, if accomplished, would make parts of the U.S. better places to live. Even the attempt to accomplish these projects would improve community morale and sense of purpose. As long as swaths of America are in disrepair and lacking employment opportunities, Basic Jobs programs have a mission to fulfill.
Basic Job Downsides
I believe that a plan which takes the shape of a Basic Jobs program has more positive outcomes and much more limited downsides than UBI. But there are still non-trivial issues:
- Basic Jobs don’t help everyone, and certainly not everyone uniformly.
- Basic Jobs do nothing for people who cannot hold down any kind of job.
- Basic Jobs are way more difficult to implement than “here’s a check, everybody.”
However, even these downsides have solutions. With a Basic Jobs program implemented, we can hopefully also keep existing welfare programs that do help those unfit for employment. (We already have a basic income for people who are completely unable to work, its called SSI — Supplemental Security Income, not to be confused with Social Security. SSI is not funded by Social Security, but by income tax revenues and pays 8.3 million Americans already.) What UBI lacks, Basic Jobs provides.